Wednesday 30 September 2009

An Encyclopaedia of Clown

[This is a lengthy piece of work, so I thought I'd publish it bit by bit. Here are the first two entries to be going on with.]

50 ways or elements (a kind of clown periodic table, perhaps?) to understand how clown works and how to generate material.

We used the Encyclopaedia to devise a short demonstration show for the Festival Of… at CSSD in September 2009, designed to test, compare and demonstrate the wide variety of forms and structures in clown performance.

To read more about how we compiled the Encyclopaedia, see my paper ‘The Dramaturgy of Clown or “What do clowns do?”’

1. Breaking the written rules of the game.

By “rules of the game”, we mean any norms of behaviour stated explicitly, and which are designed to generate a particular activity in an orderly way. Evidently the breaking of these norms will threaten or even destroy the activity. Donald McManus defines clown’s role as contradicting the context: “Clown logic does not have an essential meaning other than to contradict the environment in which the clown appears” (McManus 2003: 17).

We commonly use words like “cheating” or “disobeying” to denote these disruptive behaviours, but perhaps the most radical way is to “refuse to play”. The Olympic 100-metre runner who takes drugs (cheats) is abhorred by the sporting community, but is ultimately understood, as their behaviour is motivated by the ethic of winning the game, and thus shares the same values as sporting society. But the runner who strolls down the track instead of trying to win is an affront to the community’s ideals that cannot be assimilated within its value-system. The clown’s role thus situates him/her as an outsider, one who knows that: “There are no rules that require us to obey rules. If there were, there would have to be a rule for these rules, and so on” (Carse 1986: 10).

We all have the impulse to disobey, as well as the impulse to maintain order. Both are key elements in clown.

2. Breaking the unwritten rules of social cohesion.

By “rules of social cohesion” we mean any norms of behaviour not stated explicitly, but which are implicitly applied by mutual agreement of a group. As with the above entry, the breaking of these rules leads to the threatened or actual unravelling of the pretended order. Relationships between people, and between people and objects, start to fail.

In order to know when we are breaking the rules, we need to know and acknowledge what the correct behaviour would be. For example, we know how to use a chair properly: we can sit in it or stand up from it. We can move it or stack it, offer it or accept a seat in it.

Improper uses might be: standing on it, pulling it away when someone sits, or fighting with it. All these uses are common and logical, but remain improper in the sense that we or the chair fails to comply with the primary use it was intended for.

Going still further, we can find fanciful or tertiary uses: taming a lion, balancing it on your forehead, a chair which collapses, a chair made of paper.

Clowning thus engages directly with material and social reality, first and foremost. It sees things “as they are”. In spite of our constant breaking of the unwritten rules that surround us in our activities, those rules never go away. They may change, but new ones are continuously appearing. The goal of eliminating them is an unattainable utopia. Clowns are content to play infinitely with the rules, and thus take up no permanent political or ideological position. They are constantly responding to and contradicting the context, which is constantly changing.

I think this is a salutary lesson at our own historical moment in clown in the West. Clown is far simpler than those who equate it with self-expression, or creativity, would have it. It does not consist in having far-fetched ideas that bear no relation to reality. In brief, clown is not a short-cut to escapism. Only by accepting and coming to terms with reality does the clown truly free him/herself from the weight of materiality. You can’t change reality – it will always remain reality. This acceptance parallels the recognition of the flop in performance, when one accepts one has failed, and the audience duly laugh.

Paul Bouissac argues that not only do clown routines depend on playing with the real, but they actually serve to define what is perceived to be real and unreal. According to Bouissac, clowns thus reveal and demonstrate the tacit principles underlying society, and are thereby the producers of a kind of socio-anthropological theory-in-practice: “circus clown performances demonstrate the basic but unwritten rules on which our construction of a culturally bound meaningful universe rests” (Paul Bouissac 1997:195).

Bouissac goes further: “Profanation is not so much the breaking of a rule made explicit in a legal code as the exposure of the rule of the rules, the principle or principles that are so fundamental for the holding together of the regulative system that they cannot be formulated. For instance to make explicit and to publicize the following rule, “it is forbidden to British subjects to sneak into the Queen’s bedroom unannounced at dawn,” is unthinkable, in terms of the system, because it would imply that this action is indeed a possibility… it seems obvious that the nature of the rule transgressed, not the quantity of the transgressions, distinguishes profanation from simple rule breaking. It is as if a cultural system with all the prescriptive and prohibitive rules which form its body were actually relying on a few crucial but unformulatable rules, some sort of culturally tacit axioms or silent dogmas from which all the other rules are derived and justified but which are themselves undemonstrable, unjustifiable and ultimately impotent…. In a way we could say, metaphorically, that every morning a clown sits on the Queen’s bed, at the risk of losing his passport.... Founding rules cannot be justified by the rules they generate. In this sense, any society hangs from an unsupported hook.... I would like to lay down for discussion the claim that profanation denotes a class of actions which question these tacit principles through the selective transgression of some of the rules that are derived from them or by exhibiting some behavior which implies a system of rules that would be derived from the negation of these cultural axioms; circus clowns would then specialize in such demonstrative actions performed in the ritualistic mode which is the only way in which the unthinkable and unspeakable can be actualized within the system” (Bouissac 1997: 197-9).

3. Objects or people are in the wrong place

Paul Bouissac splits what he calls profanation into five categories. His first one goes like this: “a particular object assigned to a certain place or position is moved to and placed in an inappropriate place or position” (Bouissac 1997). To simplify, I would say: “objects are in the wrong place”. And to this I would add the category of people.

To illustrate this principle, here are some examples:

- Someone sits on a chair placed in front of the door
- A lifeguard in the desert
- A little rubber duck in someone’s mouth
- A clown is in the audience

Another sub-category of this is the absence of an object where it should have been:

- A coat hook is missing, so the coat hung falls to the ground
- A teacher is asleep in bed while his students sit in the classroom

A similar analysis to Bouissac’s has been made by Rowan Atkinson, in his TV programme, Laughing Matters, in which he discusses the rules of comedy. According to Atkinson, “an object or person becomes funny by being in an unexpected place”.

4. Objects used by the wrong person

This follows the first part of Bouissac’s second category: “an object that should be manipulated in a certain manner (or simply be seen) by a particular person or class of persons, is manipulated in this manner (or is seen) by an unqualified person…” (Bouissac 1997).

- A baby drives a car
- A business man sucking a dummy
- A bald woman uses a hair-drier
- A granny uses a pneumatic drill

A simple way of coming up with ideas of this kind is to ask the question, “ what’s the worst birthday present you could give someone?”

5. Objects used wrongly

I have separated this category out from Bouissac’s second, which continued thus: “… or is manipulated in an inappropriate manner” (Bouissac 1997).

- A hammer to break an egg
- Wipe your nose on your sleeve (while holding a hankie)
- A dining fork to dig the garden
- Drying your hair with a bike pump
- Eating a shoe

6. Action done by the wrong person

- A tramp unveils a new shopping centre
- The Queen does a car insurance advert

The same kinds of people keep coming up when we think of examples of people out of place. Favourites are: the Queen, tramps, the Pope, babies and animals.

This group covers those actions that are not so strictly attached to a particular object and its inappropriate use.

The word ‘inappropriate’ is quite a good one here, but it does sound too euphemistic to me. That’s why I use the word ‘wrong’. We all know when something is wrong, or right.

7. Action done for the wrong person

Bouissac’s third category is: “a patterned behaviour that should be performed in the presence of an object or person is performed in the presence of an inappropriate object or person”.

- A wheelchair is wheel-clamped
- A conductor conducts the audience
- A comedian tells jokes to dogs

8. Action done when you shouldn’t

The first part of Bouissac’s category number 4: “a patterned behaviour that is prescribed in a specific context is performed in another context…”

- TV news reader falls asleep
- Laughing at bad news

Most bodily functions have such socially restricted correct contexts that they easily lend themselves to being done when you shouldn’t: farting, peeing, shitting, burping, yawning breastfeeding, having sex, and dying are comedy classics!

9. Action not done when it should have been done

And now the end of Bouissac’s number 4: “… or is not performed in the prescribed context”.

- Bride doesn’t say “I do”
- Doctor stands by
- Forget to open the door in order to go out
- Suicide bomb fails to explode
- Sun doesn’t set
- Parachute doesn’t open

10. Misunderstood words

Bouissac’s number 5 is: “a word or text to which a prescribed interpretation is attached, is interpreted in another manner or, still worse, the consequences of this new interpretation are actually implemented”.

The following are some famous examples. A prize for anyone who knows who said them.

- “I’ve got one, too”
- “Who’s on first base”
- “Four candles”

Other routes to verbal chaos are through:

- speech impediments
- foreign languages
- deafness

Works cited

Atkinson, Rowan (1993) Laughing Matters, Tiger Television for the BBC.

Bouissac, Paul (1997) The profanation of the sacred in circus clown performances, in Richard Schechner and W. Appel (eds.), By Means of Performance, Cambridge: CUP.

Carse, James P. (1986) Finite and Infinite Games, New York: Random House.

McManus, Donald (2003) No Kidding! Clown as Protagonist in Twentieth-Century Theater, Newark: University of Delaware Press.

The Dramaturgy of Clown or “What do clowns do?”

This is the transcript of a paper I delivered in London at the "Festival Of..." at Central School of Speech and Drama in September 2009. It formed the final reflection on the previous year's research. Contemporary clowning over the last 50 years has largely rejected the notion that we can know what clowns do, claiming clown to be an authentic experience above all. I attempt to demonstrate such a position as false, and to reveal that clowning can be seen as a highly structured and ordered activity that owes little to the concepts of spontaneity, improvisation or play, and is therefore open to analysis of "how clowning works".

John Wright, in his study of comedy “Why Is That So Funny” brusquely rejected the notion that we can know what clowns do:

"Asking ‘How do clowns walk?’ or ‘What do clowns wear?’ are inane questions. But to ask ‘How do clowns make us laugh?’ and, more importantly, ‘What physical impulses inspire that comedy’ will take you to a place where you can find a personal ownership of ‘clown’ as a level of play." (Wright 2006: 180)

It only takes someone to state something categorically, and the clown who loves to contradict surges up inside me and speaks up with a “Why?” delivered with the intonation of a 6-year-old who just loves to contradict. Much of my research method is in fact based on such clown philosophy, which you might simplify as a kind of scientific scepticism, or instinct not to believe, to keep questioning, especially when three or more people agree on something, until there are no more questions left to ask or we are all exhausted from the attempt.

Wright’s policing of this no-go area for contemporary clowns sums up the now old-school, post-68 view that we are all better off since we did away with those nasty texts, authors, and anything that admits to being thought out beforehand, and ushered in a new era of spontaneity, improvisation and authenticity.

“Clowning takes us back to basics….it's not about routines, or structured material of any kind. “(Wright 2006: 184)

Wright does offer significant analysis of how his notions of play relate to clown, and I find much to agree with, particularly on the practical dynamics of the presence of the clown in the performer, but ultimately his position is a merely ideological one, in my opinion.

Most clown-as-play advocates lack the depth of thought that Wright brings to the matter, however. Louise Peacock, in her recently published Serious Play - Modern Clown Performance, talks of “the intensely personal nature of clowning which generates play from within the performer” (Peacock 2009: 13). Unfortunately, though, her main example is Slava Polunin, whose Snowshow is now a kind of clown franchise, the roles passed on to a list of performers operating around the globe. Not very personal, then!

Peacock offers no serious analysis of why we should continue to believe in the mantra of clown=play=authenticity. This simply stating of one’s faith in the authenticity or truth of the self is a key feature of much, though not all, contemporary clowning.

But let us leave aside debates about faith and scepticism, for I wish to turn my attention instead to another old discussion which should really interest us more as performers, as it is that question which has vexed actors, directors and actor trainers since at least Stanislavsky, and in truth since we began thinking about acting: “Is the actor pretending, or is it for real?” Or, to place a moral burden on the issue: “Should the actor pretend or should the actor create reality?”

Peacock and others, in their bland talk of truth - “the concept of performing truthfully is common in clowning” (Peacock 2009: 107) - more often than not end up talking about the “inner clown” (Peacock 2009: 34) and invoke the heritage of Philippe Gaulier along the way. Yet Gaulier has no recourse to concepts of “inner” anything. In The Tormentor, he writes: “The actor enjoys suggesting feelings. The audience enjoys feeling them. Nothing is true. Everything is false, except for our imagination“(Gaulier 2006: 174). Of course, the great clown guru is here talking about the nonsense involved in believing that characters are real. “A huge error is the confusion between the actor and his character” (Gaulier 2006: 175). If we follow Gaulier, rather than waffling about “inner clowns”, we can say that the actor, and especially the clown, is pretending for real. The pretence is authentic. That’s the best we can do to keep the faith, in my view.

Of course, such claims for a new age of acting that is more authentic, more true, more real, have been seen time and again throughout history. Soviet clowns in the 1960s, backed up by the Party, pushed away from the grotesque and towards the natural, the realistic. Oleg Popov, in his autobiography, was quite happy to break with the past:

"Let us move on to the Fratellini. Wonderful artistes, they perform in the age-old manner of buffoons, a thick layer of make-up on their faces. They are perfect connoisseurs of human nature, sharp and intelligent. But they do not try to reflect anything in their performance except such faults as stupidity, clumsiness, absent-mindedness. As a result it is hardly surprising if the most common outcome of their conflicts is a slap in the face. And the spectator hears a positive deluge of slaps. Certainly I understand that the Fratellini are the guardians of an old circus tradition, a tradition respected down the centuries. But the times demand that this tradition should be broken and it is this that accounts for the appearance of the realistic clown." (Popov 1970: 93)

A familiar argument? Well, we need only look back to the great shift from Melodrama to Naturalism at the end of the 19th century to find a similar ideological stance, one which dismissed the past as untruthful, deceitful, grotesque, false, in favour of a present which is authentic, true and, most importantly, ART.

Simon Shepherd and Peter Womack state that “drama written by the ‘emancipated dramatist’ stages its own seriousness as art. To see a play as ‘dramatic genius’ is to insist it is something more than a vehicle for the resident acrobat” (Shepherd and Womack 1996: 286).

This pretence to create performance that does not pretend, but instead is somehow “true”, finds its own kind of actor training:

"The “Method” appears to offer a uniquely modern solution to the supposedly age-old problem of repeatedly making it real. But the notion that the problem here is a problem is fairly recent. It dates from a period which has learnt to think that in a person’s head social rules conflict with instinctual drives, where intellect represses desire… The Method, designed initially to solve a rhetorical problem – how to produce truth-effects on a stage – comes, in a culture inhabited by psychoanalysis, to be a method for liberating the truths of the person." (Shepherd and Womack 1996: 286)

Correspondingly, the Naturalist ideology refuses to accept artifice: “Plot smacks too much of deceitful artifice, of hidden control” (Shepherd and Womack 1996: 283). “The good naturalist author doesn’t interfere by plotting: he just allows people to be people” (Shepherd and Womack: 284).

This is the same rejection of artifice, the grotesque and theatricality, together with a blind faith in truths, humanity, and liberating the self that we find contemporary clowning desperately trying to reinvent, a whole century on. Such a laissez-faire attitude of “don’t think, just be yourself” has become a dangerous disease in contemporary clowning. But let us not be shy of digging up clown authorship. It is lying around like unharvested potatoes. Clowns DO think!

It is worth pointing out a few of the places where these clown authors might be hiding. Isabelle Baugé, prefacing her edition of collected Pantomimes (French silent theatre of the early 19th century with Pierrot as the star), notes how one author of pantomimes, Champfleury, deviated from the norm:

"the style is remarkable and … the author does not respect the norms of writing which habitually ruled the practice of mime authorship… they generally composed in the present indicative …they avoided metaphors, comparisons and other rhetorical forms, which were difficult to translate onto the silent stage. Now, Champfleury… : the use of the past tense, figures of speech, ironical proverbs, visual descriptions of characters… "(Baugé 1995: 17).

It is evident here that the rules about how to write for Pierrot the clown are so clear that it is obvious when one breaks them.

Authors and performers have, of course, a noble history of collaborating, competing, one-upping or even trying to eliminate each other, or otherwise being chained together. Such parings abound in the field of clown: Shakespeare and Kempe (who came out on top of that one?), Irving Thalberg and The Marx Brothers, or Eric Chappell and Leonard Rossiter, whose rate of delivery as Rigsby in Rising Damp was such that “Eric had to pen extra pages of script because he devoured the dialogue at rapid speed” (Webber 2001: xi).

Scott Sedita, in The Eight Characters of Comedy, (2006) has a succinct chapter on how to act in short-form TV comedy:

The complexity and great attention to detail in sitcom writing is something that actors new comedy take for granted. They will add words, drop words, or just paraphrase. Although there might be more leniency in the world of drama to play with he dialogue (I odn’t recommend it), it CANNOT be done in half hour comedy…. DON’T CHANGE A WORD! … writers are an obsessive bunch, especially about their words…
Actors… will add words or “handles” as they’re called in the industry, thinking they’re making the dialogue more conversational, when really they’re messing up the rhythm" (Sedita 2006: 14-5).

Even those comic performers who present themselves to the audience as themselves lean just as much as anyone on their own or others’ writing. Ronnie Corbett, in his autobiography, describes his own performance as “me being me playing me” (Corbett 206: 79), but relied on only two writers in over 80 Episodes of The Two Ronnies for his cameo ramble in the chair. It is a complex question as to just how different this is to Ronnie Barker, who “found it almost impossible to talk directly, as himself, to an audience. He had to be in character” (Corbett 206: 79).

Coming back to contemporary clown training, I believe the great failure of Lecoquian teaching has been to abandon students without the resources to create material or to understand someone else’s creation. Trapped in their own collaborative love-in, companies of performers idle away the audience’s time with democracy on stage. And the clowns are the worst of the lot. Many is the full-length clown show that entertains somewhat, admittedly, but heroes of contemporary clowning such as Slava, Litsedei et al. have created works that do not stretch much further than that. Shapeless, devoid of meaning, lacking significance. Shakespeare they ain’t.

But the door into Clown Writing is wide open, and we can enter freely. If we care to look, observe and reflect, a vast array of knowledge on what clowns do is there to be had. That is what I and my workshop collaborators in London and Barcelona have been doing all this year.

And what is the result of our digging? A treasure of 50 ways to understand how clown works. Not how it feels. Many of those ways also serve to generate material. We also made strides towards a kind of universal unified theorem of clown, that might encompass a range of seemingly disparate definitions in vogue. And I would also hypothesise great steps towards the elimination of game playing from the clown devising process, a huge debt to Avner the Eccentric, one of the principal non-play clown teachers in the world today.

We have also used the 50 elements (a kind of clown periodic table perhaps?) to devise a short demonstration show, The Encyclopaedia of Clown, premiered at the Festival Of… at CSSD in September 2009. It is designed to test, compare and demonstrate the wide variety of forms and structures in clown performance.

What are my sources for the 50 entries in this encyclopaedia? Much teaching, devising and performing, first and foremost. Personally, after finishing my training with Gaulier, I was clear about what clown was, but not about how to make a show. Much of what I am now teaching in clown devising courses is a crystallisation of those early years of fumbling in the dark rehearsing shows together with Clara Cenoz, as Companyia d’Idiotes, for years before they were ready.

Secondly, as sources, there are the performances of others, live and preserved on film or video. I have sacrificed my enjoyment of a large number of clown shows over the past year in order to be able to write a decent review on each one, some of which are published on my website and blog. Inevitably cinema clowns have drawn more attention. You cannot compare the flatness of a DVD of a live show with the art of Chaplin, Langdon or Tati.

Thirdly, as already touched on, are the words of the clowns themselves. The long careers of the last three in particular have provided me with useful data for analysis of clown dramaturgy via their (auto-)biographies (Chaplin 1964, Rheuban 1983, Bellos 1999). But clowns do not usually give away many secrets. Perhaps they assume no one is interested. Coco (Nikolai Poliakoff) spends pages describing the mounting of a circus tent, but only hints at his number performed at a children’s hospital: “I tried to think of all the things I could do to make the children laugh” (Poliakoff 1941: 56). Harpo Marx, the clown of no words, spends tens of thousands of them on high society anecdotes, but only a handful on a routine (the 200 knives), though his advice is invaluable (Marx 1962: 316-7).

Fourthly, there are related fields of comedy which are not so in-bred as clowning and are happy to trade in secrets. Numerous books are on the market on sitcoms and how to write and act in them, as too on cartooning, Even stand-up comedy has stolen a march on us. Olly Double’s books are exemplary, and then there is perhaps the best autobiography from a professional’s point of view, Steve Martin’s. All these fields also boast of university level studies. In clowning I only know of two short course modules accredited by universities, at Lyon (France) and Girona (Spain).

Still, I must say I am proud to be part of a genre that continually lags behind everyone else. Always the last!

Works referred to:

Baugé, Isabelle (1995) Pantomimes, Cahors : Cicéro Éditions.

Bellos, David (1999) Jacques Tati, London : The Harvill Press.

Chaplin, Charlie (1964) My Autobiography, London : The Bodley Head.

Corbett, Ronnie (2006) And It’s Goodnight From Him…, London: Penguin.

Double, Oliver (1997) Stand-Up: On Being a Comedian, London: Methuen.

Double, Oliver (2005) Getting The Joke, London: Methuen.

Gaulier, Philippe (2006) The Tormentor, Paris: Éditions Filmichko.

Martin, Steve (2007) Born Standing Up, London: Simon and Shuster.

Marx, Harpo (1962) Harpo Speaks! New York : Limelight Editions.

Peacock, Louise (2009) Serious Play - Modern Clown Performance, Bristol: Intellect.

Poliakoff, Nikolai (1941) Coco the Clown, London: J. M. Dent and Sons.

Popov, Oleg (1970) Russian Clown, London: Macdonald.

Rheuban, Joyce (1983) Harry Langdon: the Comedian as Metteur-en-Scene, London: AUP.

Simon Shepherd and Peter Womack (1996) English Drama, a Social History, Oxford: Blackwell.

Sedita, Scott (2006) The Eight Characters of Comedy, Los Angeles: Atides Publishing.

Webber, Richard (2001) Rising Damp, a Celebration, London: Boxtree.

Wright, John (2006) Why Is That So Funny? London: Nick Herne Books.